Ang Lee’s Pushing Hands, The Wedding Banquet and Eat Drink Man Woman helped put Chinese-born directors on the international map in the 1990s, but it was his Oscar-winning films Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2003) and Brokeback Mountain (2005) that propelled him to international superstardom. His most recent effort is Lust, Caution – a return, of sorts, to his Chinese roots. Based on Eileen Chang’s eponymous short story, the film, starring Joan Chen, Tang Wei and Tony Leung, is already gaining accolades, and captured the Golden Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival this past September.

Lee is perhaps most known for his bold versatility that knows no national, cultural or even sexual boundaries – a characteristic that is the focus, among other things, of film writer Whitney Crothers Dilley’s new book The Cinema of Ang Lee: The Other Side of the Screen (Wallflower Press, 2007). Although it would undoubtedly be a valuable tool for academics, this first full-length study of the 50-year-old director’s work is also an accessible and gratifying read for film buffs. The author, who is an associate professor of English at Shih Hsin University in Taipei, not only positions Lee’s work within the context of world cinema but also the roots of the Taiwan-based New Cinema movement. We caught up with Dilley last month to ask her about her take on Lust, Caution.

that’s Beijing: What was Lee’s mindset at the time he was producing Lust, Caution – particularly on the heels of Brokeback Mountain?
Whitney Crothers Dilley: After making The Incredible Hulk, Ang Lee was so depressed he considered retiring – it was his late father who pushed him to continue. So Lee made Brokeback Mountain on a shoe-string budget without expecting it to be a success. I suspect that his father’s wish for him to continue [also] brought him to the point of making Lust, Caution … Lee’s grandparents were from the Chinese mainland, and his parents left for Taiwan just a few years after the end of World War II, so this material also resonates with him personally.

that’s: What are the universal themes of Lust, Caution?
WCD: Lee has been dealing with repressed desires in all of his films – he’s a master at the topic. Another interesting aspect is the strong feminist voice represented by Lust, Caution’s focus on a female lead (played by newcomer Tang Wei). Eileen Chang’s fiction is known for voicing the intricacies of the female psyche – in this narrative, she plays out repressed female sexual desire against the backdrop of the very masculine world of war and corruption.

that’s: How does repressed desire translate in the film?
WCD: Lee brought out an element of the story that was much more subtle in Chang’s narrative: graphic representations of desire and sexuality. Lee was convinced the sex scenes were necessary to fully represent the psychology of the main characters, and he has compared them to the fight sequences in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

that’s: Bold as it may be, Lust, Caution has been given the strictest rating in the US (NC-17) and was released in a truncated version in China.
WCD: Lee’s films have always been full of risk, both topically and stylistically. His willingness to walk the line between security and insecurity, as I have said in my book, is what makes his work transcendent.

that’s: How has Lee managed to become a bridge between Chinese and American cinema?
WCD: Lee intrinsically understands the gap between Chinese-style art (i.e. martial arts in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and American-style art (i.e. the Civil War in Ride With the Devil). He finds the universal themes that appeal to people of both cultures, such as gender differences, cultural identity, family ritual and social duty. It’s very important for Lee to be bold in building bridges between cultures – this is one of the key roles we need to play in an increasingly globalized world.

(c) that's Beijing
Chief editor: Oliver Robinson
November 2007 issue